Donald Trump frequently boasts about accomplishing things other presidents failed to do, although he frequently bends the truth. But after being impeached Wednesday by the House, he can accurately say he joined a club 42 of his predecessors managed to avoid.
Andrew Johnson. Bill Clinton. And, now, Trump.
The 45th chief executive often says only one president, George Washington, got a higher percentage of judicial nominees confirmed by the Senate during his first term. Now he joins a different kind of exclusive club, along with only the 17th and 42nd presidents.
Often compared to Richard Nixon, Trump is poised to do something the 37th president failed to do: Stay in office through his term. Trump was able to keep GOP lawmakers solidly on his side throughout his impeachment saga, where Nixon ultimately was convinced to resign by his fellow Republicans.
“No matter if you are exonerated in the Senate, or at the very least you’re acquitted and not removed, the first paragraph of your obituary will say the word ‘impeachment.’ So it will change his place in history,” said Barbara Perry, director of presidential studies at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center. “There will always be a black mark on his presidency.”
Trump’s impeachment, however, is a symbol of the movement that put him in the Oval Office in the first place.
“You have that 35 percent or so of the electorate that’s rock-solid behind him,” Perry said. “He sold himself as not-of-Washington and as someone who operates differently. … That’s what a lot of people wanted. They just accept it.”
The House approved, mostly along party lines, articles of impeachment that charge Trump with abusing his power and obstruction of Congress. Both charges stem from his July 25 call and his broader push for Ukraine’s president to launch investigations of his political rivals, chiefly former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter Biden.
The House Judiciary Committee, in a report released Monday describing the articles, accused the longtime New York real estate executive and former reality television personality of criminal bribery and wire fraud.
“While there is no need for a crime to be proven in order for impeachment to be warranted, here, President Trump’s scheme or course of conduct also encompassed other offenses, both constitutional and criminal in character, and it is appropriate for the Committee to recognize such offenses in assessing the question of impeachment,” the Democratic-controlled committee wrote.
Bruce Schulman, a history professor at Boston University, said Trump’s impeachment — in terms of seriousness of charges and political impact — likely lies somewhere between Clinton’s actual rebuke and the one Nixon was headed toward.
“Andrew Johnson’s impeachment was a post-Civil War one-off,” he said. “What we see from Nixon to Clinton to Trump are dramatic transformations in our politics, in the electorate itself, and in the media and how voters consume their news from the media. … We also have a dramatic decline in the power of the political establishment.”
‘He works for himself’
Democratic and Republican members sparred all day Wednesday over the articles and charges Wednesday during often-animated hours of debate on the House floor.
Massachusetts Democratic Rep. Katherine Clark said the president has “let the people slip from him” because “he works for himself, not us.” GOP Rep. Lee Zeldin of New York contended that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy says there was “no pressure” exerted and “no quid pro quo” offered by the Trump White House.
As other Republicans did on the floor all day, Zeldin challenged Democratic members for dubbing their party’s version of the facts “uncontested.” Moments later, California Democratic Rep. Barbara Lee said her part’s version of the facts “are not in dispute,” calling the president “wholly unfit to serve.”
Later in the day, Ohio GOP Rep. Steve Chabot quoted law professor Jonathan Turley’s testimony before the House Judiciary Committee by calling the evidence against Trump “wafer thin.”
All indications are Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., is setting up a quick trial. That means Trump by early February will be back to the twin businesses of running a divided country and seeking a second term. But some presidential scholars worry his nearly four years in office and historical rebuke by the House already has altered the face of the office he occupies.
“He’s not just our first reality TV president, he’s our first demagogue president. People say, ‘Andrew Johnson was a terrible president,’ but with this president, here is a man who knows he’s a demagogue,” Perry said. “He knows that he appeals to the base instincts of people, and appeals to their fears and their prejudices. … And the impeachment process has shown that he does not care at all about our structure of checks and balances and our tradition of checking the tyrannical power that he embraces.”
“The question eventually will become: How quickly might we go back to our traditional norms, or would eight years of Trump fundamentally alter the presidency forever?” she said. “We won’t know that answer for some time.”
Boston University’s Schulman said the changes to the office spawned by Trump’s chaotic, norms-busting term and the precedents he established by refusing to cooperate with Congress “probably will persist with future presidents.”
“Do we expect that future presidents don’t have to cooperate at all with the Congress? Do we expect that presidents are not subject to judicial action in the courts? I think we’ll see not as egregious or as flamboyant as Trump, but I think we will see some profound Trump-like changes to how presidents conduct their business,” he said.
‘Drop like a rock’
Trump reportedly is privately angry about joining Johnson and Clinton on the impeached president’s list. But he and his top aides do not sense he is politically damaged — or likely to be dinged very much by the coming Senate floor trial.
Voters are as split on impeachment as any other issue, the latest example of the tribal era of American politics that help produce Trump — and which he exploits with tweets, off-the-cuff remarks and harsh rhetoric at campaign rallies. Forty-five percent of Americans support his impeachment and removal from office, with 47 percent opposing both moves, according to a CNN survey.
Support for impeachment and removal has dropped from 50 percent in a mid-November version of the same poll. With his acquittal by the Republican-controlled Senate almost inevitably just weeks away, Trump has noticed the shift.
“Impeachment Poll numbers are starting to drop like a rock now that people are understanding better what this whole Democrat Scam is all about!” he tweeted Tuesday morning.
Though he has angrily lashed out regularly at House Democrats over their inquiry, Trump also has mocked them. His argument is their impeachment probe turned off voters, and could help him secure a second term.
“They’re embarrassed by the impeachment,” he said of House Democrats last week at a campaign rally in Hershey, Pa. “Our poll numbers have gone through the roof because of her stupid impeachment.”